**Actually, only like 60% of our stuff
About three years ago, when I first started at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I had the unsettling realization that the preservation community was really the only group out there calling attention to the waste and harmful environmental impacts associated with America’s endless cycle of building demolition and reconstruction. And it's worth mentioning -- again -- that we demolish and rebuild a lot. The Brookings Institution estimates we will demolish and replace about 27% of our building stock between 2005 and 2030.
Perhaps the lack of attention given to existing buildings has something to do with the fact that new construction drives so much of the American economy – just think about how the ultimate barometer of the health of the American economy is new housing starts. You won’t see the National Association of Home Builders or other industry trade groups beating down the doors of Congress in support of reusing and rehabilitating what’s already there.
The design and development industry isn’t much help. Architects generally prefer to design new buildings and make their mark upon the world in ways unblemished and unconstrained by the designs of those that have come before them. Developers often don’t want the hassle of dealing with existing buildings – who knows what’s lurking behind those walls and how much it will cost to fix it?
And as for green building and environmental types? On the issue of building reuse, there’s little to distinguish most of them from their architect, developer, and industry brethren. Look no further than green building rating systems, in which few points are generally allocated to the reuse of materials in situ, and far more points are awarded for the purchase of new “green” materials.
In sum: nobody looks at building reuse as a barometer of, well, anything.
But I like to imagine that I’ve seen a few glimmers of hope in recent months. This brings me to Annie Leonard, and the remarkable Story of Stuff Project. Annie Leonard has made it her life’s mission to explain to people where it is all their stuff comes from – whether it’s paper, plastic bottles, the clothes on your back, or the computer your reading this on -- and the heavy impacts that all that stuff has on the planet and the people who live here.
Annie Leonard’s viral online video, The Story of Stuff, was recently turned into a book. “Put simply,” she writes “if we do not redirect our extraction and production systems and change the way we distribute, consume and dispose of our stuff – what I sometimes call the take-make-waste model – the economy as it is will kill the planet.”
You tell em’ Annie! Surely, this visionary must see how destructive the take-make-waste model is when it comes to constructing the buildings around us. After all, 82 billion square feet of buildings will be demolished between now and 2030! That’s a lot of, ahem, stuff.
But not so fast. The Story of Stuff devotes all of two of its 200 + pages to construction and demolition – and those pages focus on the virtues of deconstruction. Despite the fact that about 40% of the material used in the US economy every year go to the construction industry, and that we produce 325 million tons of construction and demolition debris a year, Ms. Leonard writes only about the promise of deconstruction -- the dismantling of buildings to recycle and reuse building elements and divert waste from the landfill.
I think we’ve missed the point. Deconstruction of what we already have should be the last option considered. First consideration should be given to using what we’ve already got.
I saw Annie Leonard speak last week at Politics & Prose in DC last week – this was the first stop on her book tour. She spoke engagingly about how we need a total change in paradigm to transform the way we see and act in the world. A shift from a world that consumes endlessly and without regard to the environmental and human costs, to a world that is more grounded in the values of resource protection and creating communities that serve real human needs – not imagined ones.
She couldn’t be more right. But that shift in paradigm applies to our thinking about all resource consumption, including the 40% of our materials that go to the construction industry every year. It’s a big, thorny, ugly problem, and we’ve got to deal with it.
Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.